Helen Macdonald: Given to fly
The author and naturalist reflects on the ‘strange creature’ that is her best-selling memoir, ‘H Is for Hawk.’
The memoir “H Is for Hawk” finds its author, Helen Macdonald, in a desperate place. Her father, a photojournalist, has died suddenly, and the grief is titanic. Her body feels unfamiliar. She can’t sleep. She experiences a “quiet, and very, very dangerous” form of madness. She attempts to get right, to “make a new and inhabitable world,” but doing so seems impossible, and it doesn’t help that she is single, childless and unemployed.
Macdonald becomes obsessed, or rather re-obsessed, with creatures that have fascinated and terrified her since she was a girl: goshawks, “spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets.” The birds, she writes, “are famously difficult to tame,” nervous beasts that “live life ten times faster than we do.” An experienced falconer and naturalist, Macdonald decides to adopt and train a goshawk. She names it Mabel. The experience goes as smoothly as lassoing a funnel cloud.
Beautifully written and frequently crushing, Macdonald’s account of living with Mabel, which she describes as akin to “worshipping an iceberg, or an expanse of sliprock chilled by a January wind,” was among the most acclaimed books of 2015. A New York Times best seller, “H Is for Hawk” appeared on too many year-end lists to name here, won Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction and no doubt turned an untold number of readers onto falconry.
Macdonald will appear March18 in Coral Gables to discuss “H Is for Hawk” and “Shaler’s Fish,” a 1999 collection of nature poems that was republished in February. Last week, she responded to questions via email from Dubai, where she was attending a literary festival and meeting with other falconers. The following is an excerpt of that exchange.
In an interview last year, you described “H Is for Hawk” as “Deep down, a book about a miserable woman, a bird, and a dead author.” It is, of course, much more than that, but given your description, how surprised were you by the success of the book? What does it mean to you to have such a personal book be read by so many people?
It has been a surprise. More than a surprise: I’ve been astounded and thrilled by how many people have read it, and how many liked it. I knew as I wrote it that it was a strange creature, something that wouldn’t fit in any particular genre — booksellers have told me of their frustrations about where to accurately shelve it. As for the personal nature of the book? I suppose I don’t feel anxious about the book being revealing or exposing, partly because the events it describes happened awhile ago, and I’m not quite the person in its pages anymore. But also because I hope that it is, at heart, a book about being a person, rather than being me. We all experience losses in our lives, and we all have to deal with them one way or another. Not everyone gets a hawk. Not everyone falls apart the way I did after a parent dies. But we all have dark times when life becomes unrecognizable and we wonder how we are going to make it through. We all have times when we want to escape who we are.
Have you heard from people who were inspired to adopt a goshawk after reading “H Is for Hawk”?
No one’s said this to me yet. If they did, my advice would be: “Please, don’t!” Even experienced falconers find goshawks a challenge. Having said that, I have heard from readers who’ve become fascinated with falconry after reading the book and who’ve visited falconry centers and met with falconers to find out more. That’s a good thing to do. If you are serious about taking up this ancient art, then the way to go about it is to first read some good falconry books, contact your local falconry club and the North American Falconers Association, find a local falconer, see them fly their hawk or hawks, and see if you can get apprenticed to them. Falconry is highly regulated in America, thank goodness, with lots of ex- ams and inspections. Would-be falconers need a lot of free time, huge dedication, sufficient land to fly a bird and the ability to be sympathetic and courteous to a wild animal. But having said all that, if you are dead set upon it, there is nothing quite like falconry. It’s an astonishingly rich and rewarding relationship marked by respect and trust on both sides, and can give you extraordinary insight into the nature of wild minds and wild places.
What was it like for you to revisit the poems in “Shaler’s Fish” prior to its being republished last month?
It is fascinating to be revisiting those poems! I wrote them a long time ago, many in the early 1990s, back when I was a literature student. That significant distance has made re-reading the poems feel a little like working out the complicated patterns on a tree trunk or on a snail shell, in that they are familiar things to me, yet strange and interesting to look at very closely. They were never meant to be easy reads, but exist as complicated, refracted things, full of dead ends and strange syntax, and odd lyric surfaces with rhyme bubbling through. I’ve not written poetry for a long time. I think I will again.
In your “On Nature” column for the New York Times, you’ve written about an encounter with a wild boar, diseased trees and the history of field guides, among other subjects. Whatis it that you look for when considering a new column?
I’ve loved writing about how we encounter nature: how we speak about it, use it, think about it, construct versions of it that are meaningful for us. Nature is inextricably bound up for us with stories we have told ourselves about the way the world works. I have a particular fondness for writing about the cultures surrounding amateur natural history: people joyously and wholeheartedly obsessed with trees, birds, spiders, lichens. I’ve looked to personal experience as the starting point for many of these columns: spending time on a mushroom hunt with an expert amateur mycologist, or watching vast lines of cranes descending at dusk to roost on a Hungarian lake. What draws me most to writing about nature is that it’s everything there is. We’re part of it. And yet it’s in terrifying trouble, almost everywhere. It’s not hard to find it an overwhelmingly inspiring subject.
I realize this is a question you must get asked often, but how is Mabel?
I’m very sad to say that she is no longer with us. A couple of years ago, she died very suddenly of a fungal infection called Aspergillosis — it’s airborne, horribly virulent, incredibly hard to treat even if detected in time, and kills many wild hawks. I miss her dreadfully.
Helen Macdonald took this selfie in early March in Dubai, where she was attending the Emirates Literature Festival and meeting with fellow falconers.